“Do not give your books to children!” and other Medieval Rules of Book Conservation

Today’s blog is a guest post from Thijs Porck, a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Culture, Universiteit Leiden.

Gashed gatherings, bodged bindings and faltering flyleaves. The current state of medieval manuscripts, either good or bad, reflects the manner in which manuscripts have been retained and used over the centuries. Nowadays, the concern over the preservation of books leads to ever stricter regulations on access, handling and storage. But what about the Middle Ages? Did contemporary makers or users of books set any rules on how to treat these objects? Medieval, written sources on the care of books are relatively scarce. Monastic rules reveal that monks were aware of the many dangers to books, such as dust, bookworms, dirt, fire and humidity, but none state how these risks could be minimised.

The author of the text entitled ‘Hoemen alle boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene’ [How one shall preserve all books to last eternally], apparently, did find it necessary to stipulate specific rules on book conservation. The result is a unique text, in the Dutch vernacular, outlining eight rules on access, handling and storage. The text is found in The Hague, KB 133 F 2: a miscellany on 180 folia of 120x79cm, written entirely by one hand. Various ownership inscriptions, in the hand of the main text, suggest this book was made in 1527 and that it belonged to ‘Margrieten van der Spurt’ from Ghent, in present-day Belgium. The contents of this manuscript suggest that this book was used as an educational treatise for children. Most texts have a didactic nature, such as a text entitled “eenen gheestelicken A.B.C.” [a spiritual A.B.C.], while others focus on the ways in which children should treat their parents, bearing running headers such as “in quade kinderen sal niement verblijden” [evil children will not make anyone happy] and “vader ende moeder moet men in alder noot bijstaen” [one must help one’s father and mother in every need].

The text ‘hoemen boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene’ immediately follows the first ownership inscription and is the first stand-alone text of the manuscript. The prominent place of this text within the manuscript may attest to the educational import of conveying rules of book preservation to a child of the first half of the sixteenth century.

The Hague, KB 133 F 2, ff. 1v-2r. © The Hague, Royal Library

So what does the text actually tell us to do? In the introduction, the author remarks that, if the reader followed his guidelines, books would last “menich jae[…], ja te minsten twee hondert jaer” [many years…, yes, at least two hundred years]. In short, his eight rules run as follows:

1) Store your books in a dry and dustless place.

2) Do not handle your books with dirty fingers.

3) Do not let your books lie near the fire or leave them open for too long.

4) Never pull the pastedowns off the boards.

5) Preserve books from mold and decay, by, for example, not drying it in the winter or touching it with wet fingers.

6) Do not tear out a page or quire.

7) Do not doodle or add texts in the margins.

8) Do not give your books to children.

For each of these rules, the author outlines what would happen if the reader did not follow the rule. For the third rule, for example, the author notes: “want aldus soude den rugghe metten banden crempen ende naermaels ter stont breken” [because this would make the spine shrink with the cords and would make it break immediately].

Like their users, manuscripts can suffer from back problems. In this case: a broken spine.

Interestingly, the eighth rule (in violation of the seventh rule) was added in the margin only after the text was finished: “Ten 8sten, men sal huut gheenen boucken diemen ter heeren hauwen wilt, de kinderen laten leeren. Want wat in haerlieder handen comt, soe wij sien het blijfter oft het bedeerft.” [Eighth, one should not let children learn from any books that one wants to preserve. Because whatever comes into their hands, as we see, it either stays there or it is ruined]. The rule was added by the same scribe who wrote down the first seven rules. Given that this manuscript was probably used as an educational treatise for children, the addition of the eighth rule may have been due to ‘progressive insight’ on account of the author.

The Hague, KB 133 F 2, ff. 4v-5r: Eighth rule, written in the margin. © The Hague, Royal Library.

Nevertheless, the fact that, with the exception of  the original binding, the book that contains these eight rules is still available in the Royal Library in The Hague in 2012, proves that the manuscript has far exceeded its expected 200-year life span. We can only conclude, then, that the contemporary and later users of this manuscript abided by the rules outlined above and that they took to heart the moral which was added at the end of the text:

“Men pleegt te segghene an de plume sietmen wat vueghel dat es ende an eens cleercs boucken sietmen wel wat cleerc dat es. Ende alsoe weetmen gheware an de boucken van de lieden of se reijn van ijet te beseghen, goddelic ofte duechdelic van  levene sijn.”

[They say that one can recognise a bird by its plumage, and one can recognise a clerk by his books. And so it will be revealed by the books of people, whether they are clean, god-fearing or good of living.]

 For those interested in the text ‘Hoemen alle boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene’, an edition and introduction have been published (in Dutch) as: M.H. Porck & H.J. Porck,‘Hoemen alle boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene. Acht regels uit 1527 over het conserveren van boeken’in: Jaarboek voor Nederlandse Boekgeschiedenis 15 (2008), 7-21. A thoroughly revised, English version of the article, featuring an English translation of the text, is published as: M.H. Porck & H.J. Porck, ‘Eight Guidelines on Book Preservation from 1527: How One Should Preserve All Books to Last Eternally’, in: Journal of Paper Conservation 13(2) (2012), 17-25.

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